Lessening The Anguish of Mental Illness Through Supportive Workplace Conversations


“I never realized how prevalent depression is in society…very sad. We need to do more to combat this issue.”

This was the feedback that I received after delivering a webinar to HR professionals a little while back.  Though it was only an hour, we had a wonderful opportunity to cover the signs, symptoms, treatment options and stigma issues around major depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorders.  For many, this was their first look and insight into what these three illnesses are all about.   And I agree with them, that it is sad that depression still has such a detrimental impact on our workplaces and our communities.

One of the other comments received was around wanting conversation starters for HR professionals and leaders to begin the process of helping a colleague.  This can certainly be a challenge for most leaders and especially HR professionals who are expected to be able to deal with this person effectively and efficiently.  I find that the real issue is not really about how to start the conversation, usually, it’s more about our fears and self-doubts and being able to confidently start these conversations.  “What if I say the wrong thing?”  “What if I make the person feel worse or even think about committing suicide?”

We need to get over our fears and we need to treat the person who may be suspected of dealing with depression with the same confidence that we do when we suspect that a person may be dealing with other issues.  When we use confidence and empathy, we are more likely to help the person open up, find their way, get support and move forward, then we would be to do more harm to them.

A person who is dealing with depression spends an incredible amount of energy trying to keep their world together and hide that they are struggling.

When you address the issues and offer support and information, you show that you value them and that they don’t have to be alone in dealing with this issue.

Case Study #1: Changes in Employee Behavior 

Isaiah has been coming in late to work at least a couple of days a week and is having a lot of difficulty meeting his deadlines.  He hasn’t been ‘himself’ and has been getting edgy with his co-workers.

Approach:  You may want to bring Isaiah into a meeting to check in and share what you have been noticing as atypical behaviour for Isaiah.

Starters:  “Isaiah, thanks for coming in.”  “I know that it has been chaotic out in the offices with all of the changes and the new supervisor. I have noticed that you have been coming in late and are falling a bit behind and I am concerned that this extra stress may be part of the reason why, because this seems out of character for you.  What do you think?

It is important to identify the behaviour, but to also show that you are open to discussing the background and the feelings that Isaiah may be having.

Case Study #2: Changes in Emotional State of Employee

Vanessa seems to be awfully distracted, hasn’t been seen socializing in the lunchroom and looks as though she has been crying a lot of the time. When asked if everything is okay, she says that she is fine and that she just has a lot on her mind lately.

Approach:  Find an opportunity to talk to Vanessa when she is away from her co-workers and in a more informal setting.

Starters:  ” Vanessa, I have noticed that you seem very sad these days and you have been staying to yourself a lot.  I am here to listen and I would like to help if I can. Would you be okay talking about what is going on?”

How to Approach Employees

Beverly Beuermann-King will be at the HR Conference & Expo in Vancouver, April 28-29. Find out more on her presentation, Depression: Creating A Culture Free Of Stigma

One approach that I have used to encourage colleagues to open up is to let them know that I am concerned about what I see happening to them and that in my experience this sometimes means that the person is dealing with depression.  I let them know that depression is not uncommon, as more that 1-in-10 people will experience it throughout their lifetime and that with stress playing a factor, it is surprising that even more people are not dealing with it. 

Often relating how common it is, helps people open up to exploring this issue.  Sometimes even just referring to the symptoms that you know are involved in depression, helps the person relate more to what they are experiencing, but haven’t been able to pinpoint.  (As an aside: There are some very good on-line depression screening tools that can help you and your colleague further identify symptoms and issues.  These can be especially helpful in detailing that information for their doctor when they are ready to go and see them.)

Identify What You Have Noticed

It is important, like in both of these cases above, to identify what you may have noticed to be different or of concern and open it up for conversation.  Often people are ashamed or afraid to get into the way they are feeling mentally, so they may discuss more physical issues like having difficulty sleeping and/or experiencing more headaches or back pain, all of which can be signs of depression.

If you can, bring the conversation around to discussing their mood, their inability to focus and/or follow through, as this may help to separate out the illness of depression from the blues or excessive stress which may not be as serious.

People are afraid of the label of mental illness.  Often, they have pictures of being locked up and drugged up. 

By letting the person know that depression is common and that there are a variety of ways to treat and manage it, helps the person start to focus on some of their options.  By letting them know that stress plays a role, and that often finding coping strategies to deal with those stressors, may help to reduce the symptoms, can be a relief for the person.  This may be a good opportunity to suggest that they see their doctor and connect with your company Employee Assistance Program for further help.  You may also be able to suggest some workplace programs or flexibilities that may help the person to stay at work with lower stress while they get further support.

Compare With Common Illnesses

When we talk about treatment options, it is often useful to compare depression to Diabetes. 

For some people with Diabetes they need to make lifestyle changes to ensure that the illness does not progress further.  They may need to watch what and when they eat and get more exercise.  For some people they may need to do those things along with taking medications to help regulate their insulin and others may need to do all of those things along with taking insulin shots for the rest of their life. 

For some people with depression, stress management, workplace accommodations and counseling on how to implement and deal with stress may be all that they need to successfully deal with the symptoms that they are experiencing.  Others may need more support, such as a psychiatrist and others may need medications that can help to make their brain chemistry more effective and efficient at using its neurotransmitters so that they don’t experience the detrimental symptoms of depression. 

This comparison often helps to reduce the shame and fears around treatment, especially depression medications.

A Very Complicated Conversation 

Depression is complicated and it is not an easy road for someone who is experiencing it.  Time does not just ‘fix’ the person like it does for someone who has a broken arm. Time often sees the person’s ability to cope degrade even further.  Early detection and intervention help the person regain their life more quickly and with fewer negative impacts.

In many cases, the person is not able to self-identify what is happening to them.  Unlike the broken arm, the pain can impact them everywhere.  They may not even recognize how far away they have slid from the person that they use to be.  Depression ripples out from the person to their family and the people that they work with.  The quicker that the person is supported and utilizing various treatment options and supports, the more successful they will be at returning to their work and family life.  Being confident at bringing these issues to the light is the first step to creating a healthier, supportive workplace.

Road Map To Ensure A Supportive Workplace Conversation:

  1. It is not uncommon to be nervous or emotional about handling this type of intervention. Breathe and do your best to keep your emotions under control.
  2. Approach your colleague in a caring and supportive way.  This will carry into the conversation and your colleague will be more likely to trust and open up to you.
  3. Identify what you have noticed, especially how it is impacting their ability to perform at work.  Be specific.
  4. Let your colleague know that they are not alone and that you care and will continue to support them.  Reassure them that it is okay to talk openly about how they are feeling and that you will maintain their confidence.
  5. Know about the signs and symptoms of depression, but don’t diagnose the problem.  Use these to open up the conversation and pinpoint what your colleague may be experiencing. Look for on-line tools that can help to identify the signs and symptoms further if necessary.
  6. Be prepared for surprise, anger, disagreement, defensiveness, denial or verbal attacks from the employee.  Remain calm and let the employee express his or her feelings.  Maintain control of the conversation and keep it focused on work performance.  Be constructive and point out the areas that need to change, while emphasizing what can be done to improve or rectify the situation.
  7. Know and talk confidently about where help can be found within the workplace as well as within the local community.  Discuss these as options that your colleague can access.  Suggest alternatives within the workplaces such as a flexible work schedule while the person is getting help.  Look for ways to increase support and decrease their stress.
  8. Remember that severe depression may be life threatening to your colleague, but rarely to others.  Don’t ignore remarks about suicide.  If the person makes comments like “life is not worth living” or “people would be better off without me”, take the statements seriously. Immediately call a counselor or community mental health specialist and seek advice on how to handle the situation.  Your colleague may need to be seen by a doctor immediately to ensure their safety.
  9. Maintain confidentiality. A great fear of many people is that they will be labeled as ‘crazy’ by their co-workers and supervisors and therefore they keep the issue of depression silent.  The more the issue of depression is discussed as a potential workplace hazard in general and is dealt with compassion and understanding when someone does come forward, the more likely those that are suffering with depression will feel safe and access the help and supports that are available to them.

Leaders and HR professionals are in a unique position of being able to lessen the anguish of mental illness through supportive workplace conversations.  These conversations are difficult and emotional, but absolutely necessary, to ensure that our colleagues are not struggling on their own and that they do not fall through the cracks of an imperfect mental health system.  Start the conversation with everyone in your workplace.  Provide opportunities to educate and discuss the issues surrounding mental illness by offering workshops, lunch ‘n’ learns, pamphlets and other reading materials to your leaders and colleagues.  It is only through these positive and supportive conversations that we can ensure that everyone gets the help and supports that they need to get back to being happy and successful.

For over 20 years, Beverly has used her S-O-S Principle™ with people and organizations who want to control their reactions to stress, build resiliency against life’s challenges and live healthy, successful lives. Since 1995, she has spearheaded her own company, Work Smart Live Smart, and has helped teams from a wide range of industries (including healthcare, education, government agencies, finance, and not-for-profit) shift from stressed out to resilient, enabling them to be more engaged, productive and healthy.

Beverly’s psychology, sociology, management, and adult education background combine to create presentations, which are soundly based in research, and are enlightening and inspirational. Audiences discover the right strategies to improve their health, manage their challenges and enhance their life’s satisfaction, using 3 simple questions.

Beverly is an author and a sought-after media spokesperson who has made over 500 television and radio appearances on shows such as Breakfast Television and CFRB and in national publications from the Toronto Star to Chatelaine. She is a highly respected speaker and is one of less than 70 Canadians to have earned their Certified Speaking Professional designation.

Additional Postings by Beverly:

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